Meet Murphy: North Carolina's westernmost and most metal city
The world's largest ten commandments! A cryptocurrency mine! Murders! Many murders! The last town before you hit Tennessee has, um, a lot going on.
The other day, Long Carolina truther Henry Gargan tweeted this:
Buddy, is there ever. You know how when you keep going past Asheville on I-40, on past the Haywood County castration dungeon, and then BAM, you’re in Tennessee right quick? A fella could be forgiven for thinking that’s all there is to western North Carolina. But if you were to, say, take U.S. Highway 74 instead of the interstate, you’d be in North Carolina for a very long time. You’d get to places like the Nantahala Outdoor Center. You’d go past the Road to Nowhere. You might even veer off toward the Fontana Village Resort. That oasis, which sits in North Carolina’s smallest town smack dab in the middle of the state’s only remaining dry county, was most recently in the news for comping a room and a meal to a guy who sorta looked like Brian Laundrie. All because U.S. Marshals kicked in his door.
Western North Carolina: There’s a lot of stuff happening out there!
But eventually, all states have to come to an end, and so when you get almost to the end of North Carolina, you get to Murphy, the state’s westernmost town. A lot of people have heard of it, if only because a lot of old timers who might refer to this state as Variety Vacationland also might say it’s so long that it runs “From Murphy to Manteo.” Manteo is a charming little town that’s a stone’s throw from the Outer Banks, a place that many people go. Murphy, on the other hand, is way the hell out there.
I have been to Murphy four times—more, I’d wager, than the average North Carolinian. Also, I won’t shut up about it. So, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share seven facts about a town that many people talk about, but few people actually visit. Murphy goes HARDCORE.
1. Six other state capitals are closer to it than Raleigh
Murphy is 307 miles away from Raleigh as the crow flies, which is very far. In fact, six other state capitals are closer:
If you’re keeping track, the capitals of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, and West Virginia are all closer to Murphy than Raleigh. As you can see, Tallahassee, Columbus, and Indianapolis are within striking distance.
That distance has a real effect on the politics of the region, as noted by this blog post by Western Carolina University political science professor and friend of the Rabbit Hole Chris Cooper. Among the findings: The further from the capital, the less competitive the elections tend to be, and that’s not all:
Research by Political Scientist Rachel Silberman finds that distance has a particularly profound effect on women who might be considering a legislative run—each hour farther away from the state capital equates to about a 7 percentage point reduction in the likelihood that a woman will run for office. So—in North Carolina terms, the odds that a woman will run for office in Robbinsville is about 35 percentage points less likely than in Raleigh.
It’s a great post and you should read the whole thing. Also, Chris, I would have probably written something on this sooner, but alas, I was visiting Cincinnati this weekend, a city that is also, you guessed it, closer to Murphy than Raleigh.
2. There’s been a lot of killin’ in Murphy over the years
Another side effect of being far away from the actual government: people have tended to see themselves less as law-abiding citizens and more so as their own individual Judge Dredd. A few years back, I was in town to research an old murder case that I assumed would be memorable: A guy shot another guy across the state line and got away with it. Twice! Thing is, though, people I talked to were like, never heard of it. They would recall many other, more memorable shootings, including one where a guy named Bass Dockery wore a steel breastplate around because he thought he might get shot. And he did! The bullet bounced off of his improvised bulletproof vest and hit him in the arm, which had to be amputated. Glass half full, I suppose.
Wanda Stalcup, the woman who once ran the Cherokee County Historical Society, told me that it’s hard to keep everything straight because, in her words: “We’ve had a lot of murders.” Stalcup told me the thing that you might have already realized: In such a remote place, people tended to take the law into their own hands. To hit this point home visually, the local history museum in Murphy has an entire wall that’s just a collection of old rifles.
Murder, however, is not the most memorable crime ever committed in Murphy. For that, I give you this front page story from the Cherokee Scout, written on April 2, 1942:
It gets better:
3. There’s like 30 minutes of state past Murphy
Here’s the thing, when you get to Murphy, you still have to drive 20 more miles to the west to get to the Tennessee line. I know this because, and I guess I’m bragging here, I’ve been there. Back in 2017, I went out to the westernmost point in the state, which is not where U.S. 74 crosses the border, but rather a tiny spot a few miles to the south, where Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina meet. That land, the westernmost piece of property in North Carolina, is owned by some very friendly Georgians who live just to the south of the state line. They get visitors who come to see the tri-point, which is just a small brass disc in the ground next to a fence post in the woods. You have to drive into Georgia to get there. The landowners have painted a rock to try and, you know, add a little pizazz. Also, they’d prefer you ask before coming on to their property. Some people (not me) just jump their gate and run up the hill.
4. Hot take: Murphy’s not supposed to be the westernmost town
Nope! It’s supposed to be Ducktown, which sits a few miles west of the state line in Tennessee. If you’ll notice, the last bit of North Carolina border follows a ridge line for a while and then, like the lazy-ass line it is, just heads almost due south in a straight line for 15 miles before it hits Georgia. There were actually very explicit instructions for the surveyors who marked the lines in 1819 to, um, not do that. They were supposed to have followed a ridge line, and if they had, then Ducktown, Tennessee would actually be Ducktown, North Carolina. And to think, this state could have had a copper mining region that was once so denuded of vegetation that it looked like the surface of Mars!
So, why did the surveyors give up and draw a straight line? Nobody really knows. But the best guess: It was alcohol-related.
5. You know what Murphy has? That’s right some BIGASS COMMANDMENTS
This is sort of hard to find, but yes, you can go and take a look at the stone tablets that Moses himself brought down from Mount Sinai, if Moses had been approximately the size of the Jolly Green Giant.
They’re actually part of a biblical theme park called Fields of the Wood, which is free to visit and also includes a life-size replica of Golgotha. The commandments were built in the 1940s at the cost of $1.5 million by the Church of God, which LIFE magazine referred to as a “fundamentalist sect founded by A.J. Tomlinson on top of a mountain near Murphy, N.C.” LIFE was interested in this because after Tomlinson died in 1943, his younger son Milton took over the site of the commandments, while his older brother Homer split off and formed his own church in New York City. In 1953, though, Homer accused Milton of “idolatry,” and showed up in Murphy with a 12-pound sledgehammer to smash the commandments to bits. Never mind that each letter was made of concrete and six feet long. Nope! Homer was gonna eff around and find out.
What Homer found out was that, no, he could not single-handedly destroy the world’s largest interpretation of the ten commandments. In fact, after chipping a just a teensy bit off of the eighth commandment, the local police threw him in jail. I very much encourage you to look at the pictures here, the main one being a man with a crowbar looking up at the mountain, I’m guessing in the same way that David looked up at Goliath while holding his slingshot.
As for Homer, he got out of jail and kept on preachin’ until his death in 1968, when his New York Times obituary carried this headline: “Bishop Homer Tomlinson Dies; Crowned Himself World’s King” Folks, Homer was a lot.
6. You know what else Murphy has? A VERY LARGE BITCOIN MINE
Much like the muscular, bearded parent at your kid’s little league game, Murphy is very much into crypto. There’s a Bitcoin ATM at a gas station, and that’s not all. There’s also a very large Bitcoin mining operation just outside of town. Back in 2017, a startup named Core Scientific bought up what used to be an old Levi’s denim mill in nearby Marble and filled it with cryptocurrency miners, which solve insanely complex math equations in order to create new Bitcoin, Etherium, and so on.
Now, look. I don’t know a lot about crypto. But I do know that mining new cryptocurrency is getting tougher and requires more computing power, which requires an exponentially large amount of energy. Which, apparently, is plentiful in the greater Murphy area and across western North Carolina writ large. I also know that the notary who came to my house this summer told me she bought a new roof for her house using Dogecoin. Good for her.
7. Yeah, I know, they caught Eric Rudolph there
My favorite episode of Away Message was about the then-21-year-old Murphy police officer who caught the Olympic Park bomber in 2003. But during the reporting for that story, I was stunned by this claim from Chris Swecker, the FBI agent in charge of the manhunt:
I got in my car and I got from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Murphy in about two and a half hours, which is warp speed.
GOOD GAWD. Google Maps says it’s a four hour drive to cover that 225-mile distance, which means Swecker was averaging 90 miles per hour for the entire trip. That speed is plausible on the interstates, but there’s a particularly windy two-lane stretch of road just before you hit Cherokee County that would be impossible to navigate at that speed. Also, it makes me wonder if at any moment during the trip, Swecker turned to someone else in his car and, in his best dad voice, stated: “We’re making good time!”
If there is a North Carolina version of the Cannonball Run that exists, I am not aware of it. The actual Murphy to Manteo drive-time is about 8 hours and 42 minutes, so if you were driving at Chris Swecker Warp Speed, you could make the trip in six. (NOTE: I am not encouraging you to do this!) There is, however, a record for the fastest known time between those two cities on foot. In 2015, Dave Cockman walked from Murphy to Manteo in 14 days, 11 hours, and 28 minutes. If anyone truly knows how much North Carolina there is beyond Asheville, it’s him.
Murphy is also where to old Christmas carol "I Wonder As I Wander" has its origins.
Folklorist John Jacob Niles wrote to song based on song fragment he heard in a song sung by the young daughter of a group of traveling evangelists in downtown Murphy on July 16, 1933.
This doesn't really reflect the essence of Murphy. And I would guess that the average Murphy resident cares nothing about bitcoin and doesn't anticipate being murdered.
Also, lots of people visit. Too many.